Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek

You may recall that Clint and I visited the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last spring (Late Winter in the Savannahs and Bottomlands) and had all good intentions of returning to this Anderson County location during the summer. After all, it is a place with velvety-black eastern coachwhips, the occasional box turtle, plenty of five-lined skinks, and it has its share of copperheads and cottonmouths. What could be better? However, I missed traveling to this spot except for a brief visit with Carl Franklin on September 29 where we were able to photograph a very nice cottonmouth.

Now that winter is approaching, we have had some cold weather, and the leaves are dropping from the trees in the bottomlands at Gus Engeling, my thoughts turn to salamanders. And so yesterday, Viviana Ricardez and I rolled the dice (and a few logs) to see if we might spot a salamander or two.

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A flooded patch of bottomland at Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area

According to the Texas Amphibians field guide (Tipton, et al., 2012), The western part of Anderson County should be within the range of the small-mouthed salamander, the eastern tiger salamander, and the dwarf salamander, and we’d be within rock-throwing range of at least one more, the marbled salamander. Because of the extraordinarily wet autumn this season (you may recall the record rainfall and flooding in north and central Texas within the past two months), it seemed possible that some salamander breeding might already have taken place and there could be larvae in some of the pools. Low places that temporarily fill with water are great for amphibian breeding because they don’t have fish that would eat the eggs and larvae. In any case, a visit to this patch of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion on a fine late autumn day seemed like a great idea.IMG_3086

Viviana is a veteran of lots of turtle field work, though she is ready to see any herp species that come her way. She told me of a trip to Pennsylvania during which she saw several salamander species, including our biggest, baddest, most wonderful salamander, the hellbender. We could not possibly top that on this walk, but we would have fun seeing what we could find.

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A tiny crayfish from our net

We sampled several pools, pulling a dip net across the bottom and investigating the leaves, twigs, and whatever critters it might catch. Larval salamanders would look a little like tadpoles, but longer and with a feathery frill of external gills behind the head. Late in their development they would have the four small legs typical of the salamanders of the genera Ambystoma (small-mouthed and tiger salamanders as well as others) or Eurycea (including the dwarf salamander). Instead, what we found in the dip net included a few freshwater shrimp a some tiny juvenile crayfish.

IMG_3099We also visited some upland areas, and one beautiful pond that, as Viviana pointed out, had few snags for turtles to pull out on and bask. Otherwise, it was a delightful spot that should harbor all kinds of herps. I won’t say that Viviana is single-minded in her devotion to turtles, but if she was a character in Game of Thrones, she would be known as the Mother of Turtles. In fact, some do call her that!

We walked through a patch of cut and burned land that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department is attempting to restore to the savannah that was once typical in this part of Texas. Some native grasses are attempting to come back, although the shrubby growth that swallows up parts of the WMA are trying their best to reclaim this spot. Before this part of Texas was tamed, periodic fires helped keep the woody plants down and helped grasses dominate the spaces between the trees. Small, prescribed fires are the best friend this patch of habitat could have.

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Returning grassland, with the forest edge in the background

We returned to the bottomlands, and as we walked the sand and clay road toward a tributary of Catfish Creek, there was Old Man Turtle, to greet Viviana. The old man was a red-eared slider, with the typical pattern of greens and yellows now gone and replaced by dark pigment. Old male sliders often become melanistic in this way, with the carapace (upper shell) a sort of charcoal or vaguely olive-gray color with black borders of the scutes of the carapace. The head, neck, and limbs similarly darken, with the thin green lines breaking up into dots and dashes of darker and lighter gray or olive.

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The Old Man – a melanistic male red-eared slider

Viviana, of course, spotted him first, and she picked him up to examine the details of his shell and pattern. There was a notch, an old injury, on his marginals just a little to the right of center near his neck. There were subtle but lovely shades of yellow darkening to gray on his forelimbs and parts of the shell.img_3089.jpg

His response might have been, “Good day, Khaleesi – to what do I owe the honor of your examining me?” Truly, you would think that this would be the only fitting response to Viviana’s joy and respect when she handles any of these turtles. However, he was not thrilled with being interrupted in his walk to the nearby creek tributary, and his opened mouth was not exactly a grin.

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An exchange of gestures

After a series of photos of this delightful old turtle, we let him finish his trek across the road, plunging into the creek and immediately vanishing into the dark water. We were grateful to make his acquaintance, and happy to see him return to his watery domain as a free turtle.

We did not find salamanders, but we got to walk through some wonderful autumn woodlands and savannah, and meet Old Man Turtle of Catfish Creek!

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Leopard Frogs and “Horse-Apple Soccer”

Two years ago I took a co-worker, her daughter Embry, and Embry’s friend Maddy on a walk through the bottomland forests at Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge. We had fun and some good discussion about the things that live in the forest. Here are my notes:

We had barely started our walk down the old trail down through the bottomland forest when the girls froze in surprise and fascination. Ahead of us, a whitetail buck stared back at us, his head up and alert and ready to bolt away through the quiet woods. After a moment, he turned and disappeared behind a ridge, leaving Embry and Maddy fumbling for cameras. We walked toward where he disappeared, with as much stealth as we could, and peered around the ridge, but the deer had gone. These moments, even with a common animal like this, are magical and evanescent; one moment he is present, with his black, shining nose, dark eyes, and rack of antlers, and the next moment he has vanished.

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Embry and Maddy

We walked further down the wide track that cuts through the cottonwoods, burr oak, beech, and bois d’arc in this bottomland near a marsh within the refuge. Despite the abnormally warm autumn, many of the leaves were yellowing and some were falling, evidence that the trees knew the significance of the shorter days despite the warmth. Embry and Maddy, alert to every movement in the sedges and leaves, spotted wolf spiders and one that might have been a rather dull six-spotted fishing spider (my spider identification skills were not up to the task). I reassured them that these spiders held no danger and were trying to get out of our way. This was an odd role for me – if I ran into a web with one of the big orb-weaving spiders, I’m sure I would freak out as much as they would. The experience of having a spider on me overwhelms any objective knowledge of their benefits and general harmlessness.

At the edge of the path, I turned a section of fallen log and at one end, head tucked a little beneath an elm leaf, was a southern leopard frog. Its color was dark, with the spots practically obscured along its three to four-inch body. When more alert, they are often brighter and some have areas of pretty green color. At night, they snap up a great many insects, and jump away in long leaps if disturbed. Embry stepped in for a closer photo, positioning her phone over the frog to take a shot. Then I reached down, hoping to capture the frog for a moment and show its bright eyes and powerful legs, but at that moment it made its getaway.

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Leopard frog

At some point we came to a pool of water, four or five feet across, with tiny disturbances in the surface of the water here and there. What could this be? We talked about how bottomland forests flood from time to time, and the rain-swollen river and marsh stretch out to cover the ground where we stood. The flood waters carry fish along, and when the waters subside, smaller fish may be trapped in pools like this. A couple of dozen mosquitofish swam among the leaves and along the surface of the water, creating little disturbances when they suddenly turned or darted away. The girls showed a slight revulsion when I mentioned “mosquitofish,” until I explained that they were small fish that ate mosquito larvae. Embry was determined to catch one, circling around and trying to ambush one. Her mom commented, “You won’t catch it,” correctly judging that human hands are not effective tools for catching such a lightning-fast little fish. Nevertheless, it was delightful to watch Embry spot one and then another of these fish and make a quick grab into the water. Her enthusiasm made this common little fish new and exciting.

Isn’t this one of the things we treasure about children? I might have walked past this pool and noted that there were mosquitofish in it, with little reaction. Thanks to Maddy and Embry, I remembered what it is like to want to see them close up, and try my hand at grabbing one, in the process learning a great deal about how fast fins can propel streamlined bodies through the water. I once again see the crosshatched pattern of fish scales on a partly translucent body, and the iridescent blue that these fish show in the right light. I promised myself to bring a dip net on the next walk through the bottomlands.

They taught us the same lesson regarding the lowly bois d’arc tree, also known as the Osage orange or “horse apple” tree. They are medium-sized, somewhat thorny trees that grow well in deep, moist bottomland soil. The iron-tough wood was prized by Native Americans for making bows (thus the French “bois d’arc” or “bow-wood”). And, as most kids used to know when we spent more time in the woods, they produce a green, wrinkled fruit that roughly resembles a green orange or maybe a bumpy green apple. Just the right size for throwing, but completely unsuitable for eating. They are a fibrous, spherical collection of seeds that oozes a milky substance if cut. But the girls knew another thing that you could do with these horse apples. They could be kicked like soccer balls!

And so, there was an impromptu soccer game in the woods, with Maddy crowding Embry out to move the ball to the goal (under the fallen log over there), and Embry giving one a little side-kick to position it for the goal shot. Horse apples rolled over a layer of leaves, between downed logs, and past stately cottonwoods and oaks. It was great!

We also encountered several places where feral hogs had rooted the ground up to find things to eat, and we talked about how these animals didn’t really belong here but a few might do only minimal harm. Turning the soil might even be seen as a plus, but these hogs reproduce quickly and there is little to hold their population in check. Large groups simply tear up habitat and eat everything in sight, and a sow, surprised with her piglets, can be quite dangerous. So can any hog in close quarters, so we would certainly not want to approach them if we saw any.

Cottonmouths were another species that we might have run into in the bottomlands. These venomous snakes are common in the bottomlands around Lake Worth, and on an autumn day with temperatures in the 70s, it would not have been surprising to see one. Embry and Maddy were on board with looking for snakes, but were not so sure about cottonmouths. That is hardly surprising, as many stories as people tell about being chased or attacked by these snakes, which are really quite nonaggressive if left alone. I told them there should be no problem as long as we saw it first and avoided stepping on it, and I said it was my job to spot them. That settled, we resumed our walk, the girls confidently in the lead as we explored the woods.MS-willow-FWNCR-5Nov16

IMG_0699At the farthest extent of our walk, at a very old, twisted willow at the edge of the marsh, we found and photographed a gigantic black ant on the tree, which discouraged some climbing that the girls had considered. Embry had no hesitation to bring the phone in close, finding the ant at the end of my finger (I pointed but did not touch!). Afterwards, I asked each one if they had any thoughts about today’s experience.

“At first, I thought about whether there might be something that could hurt me,” Embry offered, “but then I knew it was OK.” She had enjoyed a walk through these woods with curiosity and confidence. Maddy added that the things that lived in this place really did not want to hurt you. I loved hearing that. This was a place that offered beauty, tranquility, and fascination, along with a few things that needed a little watchfulness and care. Even the “creepy” things turned out to be fascinating. I hope that they will carry this and a hundred (or a thousand!) experiences of nature with them through their lives. Maybe they will hold on to that sense of wonder at seeing fish in a pool, or a frog hiding under a log. I hope, as adults, that they can still be playful with horse apples and bring their own kids to walk through the woods and have the delightful surprise of seeing a whitetail deer staring back at them along a forest trail.

Autumn

fullsizeoutput_172eIt is autumn, a time to be in the woods. Time to be attuned to colors, smells, the chill in the breeze that seems to carry some lost recollection, just beyond memory. The leaves that partitioned the woods into a series of intimate rooms now fall to become a soft carpet, opening the view through the trees.

fullsizeoutput_172cBut before falling, the leaves can turn brilliant colors. In a year like this one, with rainfall in the last month or so and some early low temperatures, the woods can become a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, burgundy and orange. The work of the leaves is done, the green chlorophyll breaks down, exposing the other leaf pigments. The tree prepares the leaves to drop, and for a time the woods is painted with thousands of dabs of color.

fullsizeoutput_1047An evergreen like the juniper stands silently, keeping its green amid all this changing color. It can get through winter with its needle-like leaves intact, and so it remains like a dark green sentinel as the deciduous trees strip down to trunks and branches.

IMG_2820Sunlight comes at a slanting angle as our patch of earth tilts away from the sun. The quality of light on a bright November afternoon in the woods is part of the essence of autumn. The light filters through branches and creates long shadows, making a quiet afternoon even more contemplative. The life of another year in the woods is wrapping up; it is a time to reflect on where you have been, and what it meant.

Days keep getting shorter. The afternoon shadows deepen, the woods become dark. Time accelerates, the sunset comes when it seems it should still be afternoon. What is left to be done in this year had better be done soon. A reminder that nothing lasts forever, neither years nor lives. Make the time count. There’s not a moment to waste.Cp%yXthiSjWxYFqLM2cy9w